Summary: In his last parable, Jesus gives unbelievers a warning of judgment to come, and gives believers a model of enduring suffering on the way to greater glory
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Rejoice in the Sufferings of Christ
Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees were always occasions for high drama. I can’t think of one of them, with the single exception of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, where Jesus and the religious leadership of the day didn’t strike sparks when they engaged one another. It is instructive that Nicodemus’ conversation, recorded in the Gospel of John, was a private conversation – unlike what we just heard read in the gospel lesson from Luke, which took place in full view of the crowds that were building in Jerusalem, as the celebration of the Passover was just a few days off.
Nicodemus’ covert meeting with Jesus highlights two things we need to keep in mind as we consider the gospel lesson for today. First of all, Nicodemus, whom John calls a member of the Pharisee party and a leader of the Jews, reveals a startling fact about the Pharisees’ view of Jesus. He opens his conversation with Jesus in the middle of the night with these words: "Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him." You see, Nicodemus and the other Pharisees were well acquainted with the Old Testament lesson we heard read a moment ago. They all knew that the performance of signs and wonders was one credential – not the only one, and not even the most important one – but, still, one credential of a prophet sent from God. And, they recognized the significance of these signs and wonders which Jesus was performing.
The second thing Nicodemus’ nighttime visit reveals is the fear and loathing which the Pharisees had for Jesus and his ministry. That is why Nicodemus comes at night – he is afraid of the consequences for himself, if it were known that he was consulting with this itinerant preacher whose teaching so profoundly threatened the power and prestige of Israel’s religious leadership.
But now we see in Luke 20 one of the last confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees. There are many different implications of the encounter recorded in today’s gospel lesson. For one thing, Jesus words to the religious leadership show us the moment in time when it became is virtually certain that Israel will be set aside as the national instrument through which God will work in history. At this point, the form, shape, and mission of the Church are still not revealed; but Jesus lays the end of Israel’s mission on the table, for all to see.
This encounter between Jesus and the religious leadership is also rich with opportunities for presenting a gospel message of the "repent, before it is too late" variety. But all of you are believers; and, so I want to provide for you from this gospel lesson something which will strengthen your life in Christ.
Two things in this lesson are pertinent for believers, and I will mention one of them only in passing, before I develop a different idea. Today’s gospel lesson provides a stern warning for those who name the name of Christ -- for the Jews were known for the name of their God. If nothing else, this encounter shows us an application of the warning God attached to the third commandment, which reads like this: Do not lift the name of the Lord your God to vanity, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain. The stewards in Jesus’ parable most certainly held the name of their landlord in scorn, repudiating his messengers and killing his son. While Jesus does not explicitly link their crimes to the third commandment, it is not rocket science for us to see the parallels to it in the tale that Jesus tells.
But, beyond the warning for believers in this passage, is there anything hopeful? Anything other than warning? Is there something in this dramatic confrontation which can encourage US? And, if so, under what kind of circumstances? I think there is something encouraging for us here, and that is what I wish to share with you now.
Let’s quickly note the context of the encounter. Jesus has already entered the city during Passion Week. The previous chapter of Luke has recounted how Jesus entered the city, hailed by the crowds as the King who comes in the name of the Lord! [Luke 19:39]. He then went to the Temple, and for the second time in his ministry, he chased out the money changers and the sellers of animals for the sacrifices.
This really got the attention of the Pharisees, for the Passover was just days away, and Jerusalem was filling up with worshippers from all over the Mediterranean basin and for hundreds of miles to the east. Can you imagine what Waxahachie’s leaders would think if someone ran into Getzendaner Park on Saturday morning of the Gingerbread Trail and tore down all the booths and tables of the arts and crafts merchants? Passover for the Temple merchants and money changers was very much like the Christmas season for American retailers – the prime time to make most of the profit that they were going to make for that year.